Wednesday, February 22, 2006

San Antonio Travelogue

Erik Wenzel talks about his time on the range

I was recently down in Texas for the inauguration of Unit B (Gallery)with it's exhibition Notes to Self. Unit B started out in 2002 in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood and in late 2004 artist and Director Kimberly Aubuchon packed up and headed down to San Antonio. An odd choice it might seem. But San Antonio has a lot going on, and Chicago has a lot of connections with Texas. Several groups of artists and “art people” move back and forth between the two locales, and there is a lot of cross-pollination.

UnitB Red Dots
Superstar gallerist Kimberly Aubuchon affixes read dots to scores of newly acquired artworks at the Unit B opening

I was more than happy to be involved with Unit B opening its doors down in Texas. The result was a show of work by myself and Chris Uphues, and an installation piece by Ritchie Budd. The show looked great, and was well received. Leading up to the opening the San Antonio Current published a teaser, referring to Unit B’s arrival as “much anticipated.” The new Unit B is in half of a duplex. The main gallery is a large front room, this housed a frieze of Uphues’ renowned paintchips. The next gallery is in kitchen, an empty room with a counter on one wall. Here I installed my drunken drawings on coasters and napkins. In the defunct bathroom was Ritchie Budd’s installation. It was full of various detritus and was very multi media. A closed circuit camera spied on viewers and a monitor displayed them. There was also a feed to the restroom in the other duplex. So while you took a break you could watch what was going on from various vantage points. In addition to this, a smoke machine spewed fog juice, bubbles flowed like snow and musician Zach Dunlap played guitar in the shower stall.

Ritchie Budd
Kids play in Ritchie Budd's installation at Unit B's opening nite

San Antonio has a good cross section of art people, artists of various stages of notoriety and age, curators, collectors, writers and students. There are fair number of art schools too, UTSA (University of Texas San Antonio), Palo Alto and SAC (San Antonio College).

What I found in San Antonio was a great atmosphere. Dave Hickey may have derided the idea of art and community in his recent lecture at the Art Institute. But the group of artists, curators and writers in San Antonio is close-knit and quite wonderful.

Cruz Ortiz

Cruz Ortiz • San Antonio, TX
but still i'd leap in front of a flyin' bullet for you, 2005, installation view
International Artist-In-Residence • "New Works 05.1" at Artpace

There are a number of gallery spaces, as well as institutions. The two main ones being Blue Star and Artpace San Antonio. Blue Star is akin to ARC or Contemporary Arts Workshop in Chicago, except on a much larger and impressive scale. Blue Star is a massive art complex and even sports a brewery and restaurant. I was there for a Thursday night opening. There was a wide mixture of art-goers and it felt like home.

Artpace features residencies for three artists at a time. One from Texas, one national artist, and one international artist. The residencies culminate in an exhibition. Resident artists are selected by a guest curator. The first was Robert Storr. Others have included Dan Cameron, Daniel Birnbaum, Douglas Fogel, Laura Hoptman, Susanne Ghez and Okwui Enwezor to name a few.

Carolee Schneemann

Carolee Schneemann • New Platz, NY
Vespers Pool, 1999, installation view, niches in wall with found objects and diary excerpts
International Artist-In-Residence • "New Works 99.1" at Artpace

There are galleries of every sort. Down the street from Unit B is Sala Diaz. A space which has grown in notoriety and shows quality work. It has been written up in Art in America and Artforum, along with countless other publications. (Of course that doesn’t matter, right?) Just like Unit B is half of a duplex, so is Sala Diaz. The front space is a two-room gallery the other half is occupied by artist Chuck Ramirez. Ramirez is a photographer whose work extends into conceptual approaches to image-making.

In relation to Chicago, a few years ago, Monique Meloche had a show of his work. In the old, larger space, Chuck installed several large, super saturated photos of post party bliss. They effectively acted as gory gorgeous still lifes as well as photographic Ab Ex Pollock-type works.

Chuck Ramirez
Chuck Ramirez • Dia de los Muertos • 2003
digital durst print • 48 x 60 inches

Just a few doors down from Chuck lives John Mata, another artist, who co-directs Unit B with Kimberly. One of the laid back nights of revelry I ended viewing some of Mata’s videos. One was a piece he made with Chuck of two cell phones getting suggestive. The soundtrack was composed from samples of the ring tones the phones emitted. Another video featured loops of Anime explosions and a mind-numbing electronic pulse. Words appeared in gothic script and were calmly read aloud. “I Do Believe...” I was mesmerized. Most video work does not capture my attention, does not “succeed” as a piece of art. But these really did it well.

Chris Uphues
Installation view of work by Chris Uphues at Unit B

Chuck has been working on large-scale photos of women’s, primarily, purses. Aerial views of the bags opened up. The vaginal reference is obvious. They are portraits of their owners. And rather than just call the piece by the woman’s name, Ramirez has divorced the pieces from that association. I watched them from the screen of his Mac, as he worked on titling them. He smoked a cigarette in the tasty morning air. The mood in San Antonio was peaceful and laid back. Probably because I was taking time off of work to play at being a full time artist, and probably because it is so much nicer than Chicago this time of year. It just felt good.

Wenzel Sex on the Flag

Erik Wenzel
Sex on the Flag • 2005/6 • colored pencil and pen on coaster
One of Those Ones • 2004 • felt tip pen on coaster

It was so nice to get out of town, to lay back and take it easy. Chicago can be really stifling. Being in San Antonio also put some things in perspective. New York seemed even more irrelevant. So common, so typical. I’ve been having a hunch that the rest of America is at least, if not more, interesting in terms of art and vitality than New York. Between seeing who’s had ads in Artforum and what incestuous stuff is going on in Chicago, a lot is over looked. San Antonio showed me a place for art that I hadn’t really considered much.

Unit B (Gallery)

Blue Star

Sala Diaz


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